A Means to an End, the PhD and Professional Emergence

Andrew Pilsch posted a link to Matt Feeney’s article about the PhD doldrums that adds another perspective to the ongoing discussion here about finding work in the promised land, or at least having fun strolling through the desert even if you don’t make it there.

I agree with many of the things that Feeney has to say about what to do as a PhD student in the here-and-now such as connecting with folks outside the department, focus on what you’re doing right now–reading and working with the things that you’ve read, develop an engaging dissertation topic that will take you places (give the means to get to where you need to go do research), and getting done as soon as possible.

However, I don’t buy into Feeney’s first major point, “View the Ph.D. as an end in itself.” This sounds too much like spending precious time, money, and creative effort without some sense of where I am going. It reminded me of the picture above of Miao Miao playing in her catship. She’s having an awful lot of fun doing her cat thing, and she revels in the process of being-cat. However, she doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a end goal in mind for her being-cat. For Miao, it is an on-going process of being-cat, or cat-emergence.

Unlike Miao, we, PhD students, have to have a means for providing for our being-professional, being-teaching, being-professor. Our emergence as an intellectual worker and teacher depends on our securing a job that enables our becoming. Miao, through the grace of the maker and Yufang’s and my good will, has the support and patronage that allows her cat-emergence as it configured within the confines of our house (her emergence outside the safety of our home would be very different than it is now). It is with this need of financial, institutional, and community support in mind that I consider an end goal, the PhD as a means to an end, the degree as a means to make my work possible.

Obviously, we all may not end up where we want to be at the end of the PhD process, but I intend to marshall every resource I have available to achieve my own pedagogical, research, and professional goals, all of which are made possible by my work in and beyond the PhD program.

I, like many of my friends in English PhD programs, began this arduous journey of learning and preparation in order to get some where, namely teaching and research. The latter augments the former through expertise and cultivating an ever-refreshing approach to teaching in the university environment.

Perhaps some folks begin PhD programs as a kind of holding pattern, not knowing what they want to do or where they want to go, but I, and many others, realized that we had a goal in our sights that was made possible only by the successful completion of our program with ancillary work augmenting our CV.

Furthermore, I and my compatriots joined this particular wagon train because we enjoy the journey as much as our arrival in the promised land–the frontier’s edge. Our journey doesn’t end there, at least not for all, because we should continue venturing further into unexplored territories of research, ideas, and pedagogy. We are, like Miao, in a continuing emergence of self as professor, researcher, and professional, but the PhD makes those things possible. Holding the degree as an end unto itself may erode the possibilities that the degree and one’s other work make possible.

Considering the PhD as an end unto itself is a step backwards. It reinstitutes the holding pattern, the wandering without a focus. We, as PhD students preparing for jobs in whatever way suits our individual goals, need to revel in the joys of our work and the professional preparation that we are daily engaged in.

Perhaps PhD programs do not instill enough plasticity into our selves that we can draw on if our goals do not work out as well as we would like. Finding new ways to employ our skills if we don’t land the job we desire is necessary. However, the PhD program is only one aspect of our lives, and the many other places in which we learn and those we learn from should augment our skills to roll with the punches, to seize success despite the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Enjoy the process, prepare for the punches, but most importantly, keep your eye on the prize.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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2 comments on “A Means to an End, the PhD and Professional Emergence
  1. Andrew says:

    I like yr comments, but I think Feeney’s “view the PhD as an ends to itself” isn’t necessarily the same thing as coming in w/ an eye towards using it as a holding pattern.

    One of my mantras of late has been “worry about the things you can control.” As I read about more and more job market horror shows, I’m becoming convinced that the market is more or less random: that after a certain point, I can’t control the outcome of various hiring committees. As such, the only things I can control are my written work and my teaching.

    Similarly, the way I took Feeney was that, while you can work towards strengthening yr CV or whatever, professional concerns shouldn’t be *the* driving factor in yr time in grad school, as that will only produce misery (due to confronting what is essentially a random situation). I took him to mean that we can’t worry about the job market, b/c we have very little control over it to begin w/. I think it’s a question of attitude: if you approach the PhD from a position of joy, yr work will be stronger, yr teaching will be more rewarding, & I’m convinced that you’ll come out more marketable in the long run, b/c you won’t have the desperate, Debbie Downer vibe that so many English PhDs start to develop after a few years & b/c you’ve focused on the things that you can control & made them as strong as possible.

    So yeah, I totally see & agree w/ yr point, but I guess I just chose to interpret Feeney’s argument differently: I think he’s talking about frame of mind & not necessarily changing the purpose of the degree.

  2. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the reply. Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It is a matter of interpretation. Nevertheless, I feel that its important to have a clear set goal in mind if you want any chance of getting to where you want to be when you’ve obtained your PhD. Especially as an English Lit PhD, what you choose to do now will ultimately determine the kinds of jobs you can try to get later on. So you are right about doing the things that you need to do to build a good CV. However, the things that you choose not to do will eliminate your chances of getting another kind of job. Depending on the humanities PhD, or even different kinds of English PhDs, there is more or less leeway in terms of shifting gears or looking for alternative types of employment. So, I wanted to point out that you really need to develop a strong sense of where you want to go now rather than later, because the things you have been doing while letting the PhD be an end to itself may not situate you for a particular or narrow selection of possible careers. This is not to say that you cannot be plastic when you begin looking for different kinds of jobs, but I think particular PhDs and the things that you do while in the PhD will open up or limit what you can do. And, I don’t think being like Max Fischer will help matters, because you can potentially spread yourself too thin in terms of experience and CV building.

    Jason

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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